Cherryleaf’s Trends/Advanced Technical Writing Techniques – Next course 10th November 2015

Cherryleaf’s next Trends/Advanced Technical Writing Techniques course will be held on the 10th November 2015, at our training centre in central London (SW7).

This course is for you if you are an experienced technical communicator who wants to know about the current trends and ideas. Don’t get left behind: past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger, Tekla and Visa International.

A technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs

At the TCUK 2015 conference, Rachel Johnston mentioned the idea of a content maturity model. We thought we’d take this idea and ask:

Could we develop a model that illustrates a hierarchy of needs for users of technical communication (and in particular, User Assistance)?

A model of what?

We suggest calling this model a technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs. This is because we’re considering the different points where a user interacts with technical communication content, the information they need, and value it gives to them.

It takes a similar approach to the content maturity model Rachel suggested (shown in the photo below), with the least mature organisations providing just the legal minimum, and most mature content systems contributing to branding and evangelism.

content maturity model diagram

A user’s hierarchy of needs also enables us to compare this model to similar models from content marketing and product design. For example, the categories in our model’s hierarchy roughly correspond to Peter Morville’s “User Experience honeycomb”, as well as the key elements in product design.

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Reflections on the TCUK15 conference

I was one of the presenters at last week’s Technical Communication UK 2015 (TCUK) conference. TCUK is the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators’ (ISTC’s) annual conference for everyone involved in writing, editing, illustrating, delivering and publishing technical information. It’s an opportunity for Technical Communicators from the UK and mainland Europe to meet up and mingle, learn and present.

auditorium at tcuk 15 conference

Here are my reflections on the event.

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The ContentHug interviews

I was asked to take part in the ContentHug series of interviews on technical communication and content strategy.

It was fun and challenging, going through the questions.

ContentHug’s Vinish Garg is interviewing a number of consultants involved in technical communication and content strategy, and asking them essentially the same questions. By reading the interviews, you can see where there are areas of agreement and where there are a variety of opinions. In general, there is a fair bit of consensus. They are worth reading.

Software companies are not selling boxes anymore

Wistia’s Chris Savage has written an article on how the company focuses on articulating its company vision to differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace.

In the article, he states:

“To buy software back in the day, you’d go to the store, buy a box, and bring it home. Inside of the box would be a shiny CD, which had your new program on it.

You’d install the program on your computer, and then you’d use it for a few years. When the next version came out, maybe you’d get a discount because you bought the previous version. If it had some good upgrades, you’d consider making a purchase.

That’s all changed.

Now when you’re buying software, you’re not getting a static product. You’re buying something that’s continually evolving and changing. At Wistia, like most SaaS companies today, we deploy fixes and improvements multiple times per day.

When we buy software today, we’re not just buying into the current benefits, features, and price. Instead, we’re making a bet on the product’s future.”

Customers expect a continuing relationship with companies. They expect the product to grow, to see an ecosystem to evolve. Interwoven into this, is the support they receive. They expect high quality information when they want to explore how to get more out of the product, or troubleshoot any issues. This means User Assistance, the online Help, must become part of the initial design, and part of the user experience. It can no longer be an afterthought bolted on once the product has been developed.

Squares v circles on screenshots?

We were asked:

“Do you know whether it is better to use squares or circles to indicate something on a screen shot? I use circles with thin border & compliment with an arrow. My colleague uses squares & the Subject Matter Expert prefers circles. I was  just wondering whether there is a best practice for this or not.”

It’s a good question.

Gestalt theory states:

“Elements with a point of interest, emphasis or difference will capture and hold the viewer’s attention.”

This indicates the reader’s attention will be drawn towards contrast, which means the element that is different from others in some way. So there is an argument for having a different shape if that element doesn’t stand out. However, shadows, colour and thick borders can also create contrast effectively.

We would say if you are highlighting a button, or some area that is roughly square or rectangular (such as a window or a field), use a square or rectangle. You can add emphasis by making the surrounding area darker (so the key area is in a spotlight) or perhaps an arrow.

You could use a circle if you wanted to point to a spot or an area that is small in size. Circles require less space, so they are good where you need to have a number of elements highlighted within the same screenshot.

Arrows are often affordances, something that affords the opportunity for that object to perform an action. They are good for highlighting an action. They can also work to help the user focus on an area of a screen, and are often used for that purpose.

It also depends on the graphics tool you are using. If it’s easier to create circles than squares, you’re more likely to use circles. If it’s easy to add an arrow, you’re more likely to use arrows.

What do you prefer: squares or circles? Do you have standards for which to use, and when?

Creating palaces of almost forgotten things

Museum of almost forgotten things brochure

This weekend, we went to the Fabularium on London’s South Bank, where the programme highlighted The Museum of Almost Forgotten Things. It struck me that this concept could also be applied to technical communication. The impetus to write things down, to document policies and procedures and to write user documentation for software written in a Sprint, is often due to organisations worrying that important information might be soon forgotten. Technical Authors often capture and record almost forgotten things. They might, however, object to the word “museum”, because they are working with how things are today much more than how things were in the past. So perhaps “palace” could be an alternative word to use.

Ben Haggerty, the storyteller whom we saw perform, started by trying to discover who we, the audience, were. He quoted a west African saying that there are four types of people in the world:

Those that know and know that they know. These are called teachers, and should be respected.

Those that know, but don’t know that they know. These people are asleep.

Those that don’t know, and know they don’t know. These people are students.

Those that don’t know, but don’t know they don’t know. And there are 630 of them sitting in the House of Commons on the other side of the Thames.

It’s interesting to see how close this old African saying is to competency models used in training today: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.